In a Crisis, Even a Gift From the N.C.A.A. Begets Turmoil
- by NewYorkTimes
- April 5, 2020
Baseball has always spoken to Tyler Kapuscinski. Growing up in Marlboro, N.J., he wrote school papers on Mickey Mantle, his father’s baseball idol, and found his own footing in the batter’s box.
The distinctive sound of a bat making square contact with a baseball — a ringing ping for an aluminum bat and a heavy thwack for wood — resonated deeply, a fleeting moment of joy in an exercise rooted in failure. “Say I just hit it dead on the screws, and by the time I get to first base it’s already gone,” Kapuscinski said. “It’s a constant chase to get that satisfaction.”
Kapuscinski, who is not big, fast or blessed with a strong arm, had hoped in high school that he could play at an N.C.A.A. Division III college. But he caught the eye of the coaches from Marist College, at the lower end of Division I, and received a partial scholarship.
After sitting out his first year because of an injury, Kapuscinski became a starter the next season as a first baseman and a designated hitter.
Kapuscinski was twice selected to the all-Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference first team, and he led the league last season with a .366 average — all with a bad left shoulder that required surgery last summer.
In the eyes of pro scouts, Kapuscinski did not seem promising enough to be drafted, so he returned to Marist for another year — as a graduate student and a senior athlete, recapturing the time lost to injury and hoping for another strong season to persuade a professional team to give him a ticket to keep chasing his dream.
The game, as it usually does, would tell him when he was done.
Except now, when the spread of the coronavirus has shut down virtually all sports, including those at the college level.
Kapuscinski, and thousands of seniors like him, may get another chance. On Monday, the N.C.A.A. granted an extra year of eligibility to all athletes in Division I spring sports, including golf, tennis, softball, beach volleyball, men’s volleyball, track and field, and rowing, among others.
But the extra year creates a new set of questions: How much of an athlete’s scholarship aid will be renewed? Do they really want to continue their education? What are their pro prospects and financial circumstances? Is this a bad time to enter the job market and how important is it to go out on their own terms?
No college athletes, though, have more to unpack in the coming months than those in baseball, which has the most participants of any spring sport — more than 35,000 at all three levels — and also sends more athletes to professional leagues.
Major League Baseball added to the complications last week by deciding to shorten its draft to as few as five rounds (from the current 40) and to restrict signing bonuses for undrafted players to $20,000. The move is likely to keep more seniors and juniors, who are eligible for the draft, in college.
A player who might have been drafted in the sixth or seventh round, who would have expected a signing bonus in the $150,000-$250,000 range, might have to settle for 10 percent of that if he wants to turn pro now.
“I think you’ll see the majority bet on themselves and go back to school,” said Keith Guttin, the coach at Missouri State. He estimates that four of his eight seniors might return, but he is hardly certain.
“They don’t know where life is taking them in the next three months,” Guttin said. “I don’t know if anybody does. You kind of have to figure it out as you go.”
Edwin Thompson, the coach at Eastern Kentucky, said there would be difficult conversations ahead for coaches and players. His junior shortstop, Daniel Harris IV, was batting .460 and might have been drafted between the 15th and 25th round, Thompson said. He is now more likely to return to school.
“That’s great from a coaching standpoint — it makes us a better team,” Thompson said before expressing concern about younger players who expected to inherit Harris’s playing time. “Now, what about the guys behind him that are not going to get the reps?”
For some players, returning may be an expensive proposition. As a nod to the uncertainty of the pandemic’s financial impact on athletic department budgets, the Division I council said that schools could welcome back seniors while offering them less athletic scholarship aid — or none. In baseball, the N.C.A.A. allows only 11.7 scholarships to be spread among as many as 27 players on a 35-man roster. (Returning seniors will not count against those limits.)
All of this has given Kapuscinski much to consider.
If a professional team were willing to sign him as an undrafted free agent, he would surely jump at the chance. But none did so last year — when he was 22 and coming off a strong season, so why would anyone do it now, when he batted just .245 in an abbreviated 12-game season? And returning to the college game seems unlikely to improve his chances: Even if he hit like Mantle next season, he would be 24 by the draft, which is geriatric for a prospect.
Kapuscinski finds himself thinking maybe it is just time to get on with his life.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing last year and is on track to receive a master’s degree in integrated marketing communications by the end of the summer. He has a serious relationship with a woman who graduated from college last year and works as an emergency room nurse in Paramus, N.J.
His plan, then, is to go into sales. It would be a good substitute, he figures, for baseball.
“A lot of sales positions are team-based, but you’re a master of your own destiny,” Kapuscinski said, running down the comparisons. “You have to be adaptable — no day is the same. It’s a career based around failure with a little success.”
Still, there are reasons to return to Marist for a sixth year, perhaps stringing out his master's classes or working on another graduate degree. That would allow him a chance to play more with his younger brother, Justin, a freshman catcher. A highlight of this abbreviated season came in the next-to-last game when they were in the lineup together, Tyler at first base and Justin at designated hitter.
“When I saw his name in the batting order, I flashed back to seeing my name there for the first time,” Kapuscinski said. The next afternoon, Kapuscinski struck out with the tying run at second to end the eighth inning in a 2-1 loss to East Tennessee State. Four days later, on March 12, he learned he may never have another at-bat.
The Marist players were told to meet in their locker room at 2 p.m.Chris Tracz, the Marist coach, walked in 15 minutes late. Kapuscinski glanced at the notepad in his coach’s hand and saw “Eligibility?” written on it.
He knew immediately that the season was over.
It was a long, tearful meeting. Tracz told his players that this would be their generation’s 9/11 — a moment they would always remember.
“Nobody prepares you for telling you your season — and your career — is over,” said Tracz, who could have five seniors returning. “These guys put in a lot of time and sacrificed a lot. Tyler had surgery and rehabbed. To see that pulled away, even for the right reasons — you don’t want to have those conversations. I just told Tyler I was sorry, I loved him and that we’d do whatever we could to make it work.”
The players dispersed the next day, returning home.
Kapuscinski is playing lots of video games, attending class online and thinking. He had been interviewing for sales positions last fall, but as he immersed himself in baseball, that all seemed so distant. Not anymore.
“Right now, I’m just wrapping my head around things,” he said, lamenting that he cannot see his girlfriend because doing so would put family members at risk. “I can only imagine what other people are dealing with, because everything is crashing down around me. I’ve lost that sense of security in knowing I have time to figure it out. It’s overwhelming. If you didn’t have your career planned out, it’s a very indecisive time.”
Earlier this week, he left the house with his brother to find a baseball field. The first two they visited were closed. Then they tried their old middle school diamond. It was open. Justin squatted behind home plate, and Tyler went to the pitcher’s mound.
His fastball was not what it used to be. The changeup wasn’t bad. Still, he threw and threw and threw.
“My elbow’s hanging,” he said the next day, with a full appreciation of why that felt so good.